Medicinal plants are indicators of indigenous knowledge in the context of political volatility and sociocultural and ecological change in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Medicinal plants are the primary health care option in this region of Central Asia. The main objective of this paper is to demonstrate that medicinal plants contribute to health security and sovereignty in a time of instability. We illustrate the nutritional as well as medicinal significance of plants in the daily lives of villagers. Based on over a decade and half of research related to resilience and livelihood security, we present plant uses in the context of mountain communities. Villagers identified over 58 cultivated and noncultivated plants and described 310 distinct uses within 63 categories of treatment and prevention. Presence of knowledge about medicinal plants is directly connected to their use.
Keywords: Afghanistan, Indigenous knowledge, Food security, Food sovereignty, Health security, Health sovereignty, Medicinal plants, Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals. Indigenous individuals also have the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2008, Article 24, Section 1).
The notions of health security and health sovereignty are analogous to the discussion of food security and food sovereignty. Unlike food security, which suggests access to food to meet minimum nutritional needs, food sovereignty encompasses the right and ability of individuals and groups to choose their own food based on the socio-cultural and ecological systems they inhabit (Mousseau 2005; Kassam 2010; Nabhan 2009; Windfuhr and Jonsén 2005). The idea of health sovereignty includes the ability to choose medicines that are socio-culturally and ecologically appropriate thereby providing practical, reliable, and contextually-relevant health care options (Kickbush 2000; Smith 2006). Denial of self-determination over food and medicine is a repudiation of fundamental rights of autonomy as guaranteed by Article 24 Section 1 of the UN Deceleration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (quoted above).
The significance of medicinal plant use to food and health sovereignty is amplified under conditions of socio-cultural and ecological change in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The peoples of this region, whose history is associated with the Silk Road, have been at the vanguard of violations on their sovereignty in the form of imperial machinations of the British Empire and Russia, and subsequent cold war alliances between the West and the Eastern Bloc countries. More recently, civil unrest during the 1990s in Tajikistan and a 30-year global war localized to Afghanistan has contributed to regional instability. Under these conditions, food and health systems are compromised and the threat of famine is ever-present. Given the collapse of the command economy in Tajikistan and continued political and social instability resulting from war in Afghanistan, locally available foods and medicines are important options for food and health sovereignty.
Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plant use is context-specific as it is related to, and contained within, a group of people who live in a defined geographic region—in this case the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia. Knowledge for this context is derived from the web of interactions between humans, plants, animals, natural forces, and land forms. Therefore, social, ethical, and spiritual relationships also have an ecological foundation. Context-specific knowledge about soil variation, temperature, water, characteristics of local plants, and seasonal conditions accumulated over generations enables medicinal plant users in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs to sustain dynamic relationships within their habitat (Kassam 2009a). Research consistently indicates that agrobiodiversity based on indigenous farmer knowledge contributes to food sovereignty (Rerkasem et al. 2002). Similarly, medicinal plant knowledge contributes to health sovereignty, in which local peoples have meaningful options in their social and ecological systems.
Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plant use in the Pamir Mountains may be threatened by continued socio-political instability, climatic change, and the impacts of the globalized market system (Voeks and Leony 2004). For instance, under the Soviet command-economy, communities in Tajikistan were forced into industrial agriculture, resulting in the losses of valuable ecological knowledge and a diversity of seeds which had been adapted for local cultivation. Similarly, the intervention of institutional medical systems connected to the profit-driven international pharmaceutical industry might compromise long term retention of medicinal plant use. We do not suggest that there is no role for ‘western’ medicine and hospitals in these regions, but such facilities are hard to sustain with limited resources and may not be easily accessible in terms of both cost and distance for the majority of the rural inhabitants of this region (AKF-T 2004; Bartlett et al. 2005).
Our objective is to demonstrate indigenous human ecological knowledge related to medicinal plants. After describing the research approach, we examine indigenous knowledge of plant diversity, plant use categories with respect to health sovereignty, the notion that food is medicine, seasonal availability and storage of plants, and conclude with suggestions for further research on medicinal plants in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan.